Huge risk of environmental damage and loss of local democracy from planning reforms

Proposed planning reforms have been heavily contested by environmental, community, legal and professional organisations around the country

Environment Minister Amy Adams recently released the Government’s proposed changes to the principle planning legislation in NZ (the Resource Management Act 1991). The Minister’s assertions that the proposed changes will not harm the environment and will achieve substantial efficiency gains in resource management have been heavily contested by environmental, community, legal and professional organisations around the country, including:

Jan Wright, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

Former Environment Minister Geoffrey Palmer

New Zealand Conservation Authority

Local Government New Zealand

Forest and Bird

The Environment Defence Society

Greenpeace NZ

Environment and Conservation Organisations of Aotearoa NZ

NZ Law Society

Resource Management Law Association

Historic Places Aotearoa

New Zealand Planning Institute

New Zealand Institute of Architects

New Zealand Institute of Surveyors

Approximately 13,000 submitters on the planning reforms discussion document are disappointed that key concerns raised have not been reconsidered. The fact that the proposed changes to the principles of the planning legislation will “significantly and seriously undermine environmental protection” has been demonstrated by members of the legal profession, including Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Resource Management Law Association and DLA Phillip Fox Lawyers.

The need for the proposed changes has been repeatedly questioned, with submitters pointing out that the vast majority of resource consents in New Zealand (approx. 90%) are already processed within 20 working days without notification of neighbours or the public. Which in terms of time taken and use of notification, is significantly lower than that for applications decided in England, Wales and New South Wales. Less than 0.6% of all resource consents in NZ are refused, compared to 12% in England[1].

The poor quality of the information presented by the Ministry for Environment has been heavily criticised and a lack of justification for proposed changes was raised by many, including Local Government New Zealand, New Zealand Conservation Authority, New Zealand Planning Institute, the Environment Defence Society and Greenpeace.

As best summarised by the Environment Defence Society, the Environment Minister has largely relied on information “widely pilloried for its lack of problem definition and reliance on unsubstantiated anecdote. It has been derided amongst the resource management professions for its lack of intellectual rigour…[and] has been widely criticised by experts, environmental NGO’s and business groups…”

The proposed suite of changes have all the appearance of creating a sham environmental consenting system, in that it maintains the appearance of a consent process, whilst progressively removing the ability of decision makers to turn down development with harmful effects and opponents of proposals from delaying consent decisions through submissions or appeals. 

Residents of several councils in Wellington are protesting loudly about the possibility of forced Council amalgamations into a Wellington Super Council, whilst being blind to the loss of local democracy that could arise through the proposed planning reforms.

The assessment of resource consents may no longer need to consider effects on amenity (which covers matters of privacy, outlook/views, overshadowing/access to sunlight, recreation opportunities, local character/identity and urban design), which currently underpins the majority of planning policies and rules in urban areas. This could pave the way for new commercial and housing developments which harm the amenities enjoyed by residents of adjacent dwellings, the appearance of streets/districts and provide little or no amenity for occupants.

If this is not bad enough, there are serious concerns that proposals will have high transitional costs and may not deliver the intended benefits.  No detailed consideration has been given to how these changes will be funded or implemented.   


[1] Refusal rates between NZ and England are not directly comparable, as more development in England (such as every house and commercial building) requires consent compared to a fraction of such development in NZ.   English statistic sourced from the English Department of Communities and Local Government Table 120 January to March 2013  NZ statistics sourced from Ministry for the Environment, Resource Management Act: Two-Yearly Survey of Local Authorities 2010/2011 published September 2011.